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Good morning. I was fascinated by the discussions on this programme yesterday about the current disenchantment with capitalism. Government minister Jesse Norman offered a few of the reasons linked to recent political and financial crises; and his new book: How Adam Smith would Fix Capitalism suggests the father of economic theory would have radical remedies for the 21st century.
And, this reminds me of other recent examples of questioning, even reversing, accepted trends and policies. For instance, Germany is reconsidering its previously generous policy welcoming refugees, and Italy is challenging the whole principle of free movement within the Schengen area.
This type of about-turn thinking is the old texts of Hinduism regard such vacillation on a personal and social level as typical of human behaviour, In Sanskrit, it’s called bhoga-tyaga – wavering between indulgence and abstinence; commitment and reneging; miserliness and munificence. It’s why, as individuals, we’ve difficulty maintaining good intentions; or feel the need to detox after a period of over-indulgence, but then later happy to return to our sense-gratifying lifestyle.
Of course, circumstances change and being flexible and able to revise our position is vital. But, our reversals risk being impulsive and capricious. When we say the circumstances have changed, what we can sometimes mean is: “I’m not getting what I wanted out of this situation. Let me try something else.”
Addressing this, Hindu teachers down the ages have endorsed a range of views about how we should balance enjoyment and renunciation. A few like Carvaka, have promoted full-hearted gratification. He’s famous for saying that the tastiest food is cooked in butter – so get yourself lots of butter. Others have encouraged renunciation of all worldy pleasures as a more certain path to satisfaction and peace of mind. Sri Aurobindo suggested doing both - enjoy the pleasures of the world through your body but be detached from it all mentally. On its own, that is harder to live by than it sounds.
So, teachers of the Bhagavad-gita have integrated these seeming contradictions through an analogy. Suppose we see some valuable lost property lying in the street. We might pick it up thinking: my lucky day. Or, we could leave it where it lies not wanting to benefit from someone else’s loss. But, the best option is to do what we can to return that property to its rightful owner.
Whether in economics, politics or our individual path in life, I believe it is this additional principle of service to others that lifts us from self-interest and helps to dampen our fluctuation between states of gratification and denial; trying to be too mean or too generous; or suffering bouts of over-pessimism or over-optimism.